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 Emil James Bisttram  (1895 - 1976)

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Lived/Active: New Mexico/New York / Mexico/Hungary      Known for: dynamic symmetry, non objective painting

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Ad Code: 2
Emil James Bisttram
from Auction House Records.
The Family, 1932
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Hungarian born, Emil Bisttram became one of the Southwest's leading painters and teachers.  He was a founder of the Transcendental Art movement in New Mexico, devoted to themes exploring and promoting universal meaning that included idealistic forms and colors that suggested sounds.

Best known as an abstract painter, his style ranged from the classic regionalism of the 1930s (WPA murals) to abstractions based on the dynamic symmetry theories he learned from Jay Hambidge, tempered by Roerich's Russian mysticism.  Indeed, Bisttram would often speak of his association with Nicholas Roerich at the Master Institute in New York City, citing a story where the Russian master handed him a handful of wider brushes for his birthday thus indicating that he should employ broader strokes in his paintings.

He received his artistic training in New York at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, and the Art Students League and with Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1930, Bisttram first traveled to Taos, New Mexico, but found himself frustrated by the grandeur and limitless space of the scenery.  Initially he directed his attention to watercolor depictions of Southwest Indian ceremonial dances. "His credo was to paint not so much for the sake of art as 'for the spiritual insight he gains from the act of creation." (Gibson 56).

He went for several months to Mexico to study mural painting with Diego Rivera, taught briefly in Phoenix, Arizona, and in 1931, settled in Taos.  There he established the Taos School of Art and frequently lectured on comparisons of modern and representational art and promoted the theories of Kandinsky and Mondrian.  He also started the Heptagon Gallery in Taos.

He co-founded with Raymond Jonson the Transcendental Painting Group that promoted non-objective painting, and for a period devoted himself to painting symphonic rhythms.  However, he also did realistic subjects, believing that an artist should not limit his style.

His murals can be found in the courthouses in Taos and Roswell, New Mexico and the lobby of the Department of Justice Building in Washington DC.

Sources include:
Peter Hastings Falk (Editor), Who Was Who in American Art
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Arrell Morgan Gibson, The Santa Fe and Taos Colonies
Additional information courtesy of Burt Wilson.

Added note:
According to a brochure from 1948, Bisttram maintained the Emil Bisttram School of Fine Art in Los Angeles, California, in the 1940's at 636 South Ardmore at Wilshire Boulevard. The school offered a four year Fine Arts Course and additional Summer sessions in Taos, New Mexico.  Bisttram himself is named as instructor.  The school also offered a course in Advertising and Illustration Art.

Information provided by Carol Putman

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Santa FeTucson:
Emil Bisttram was born in Hungary, near the Romanian border, in 1895.  When he was 11 years old, his family immigrated to New York City.  Emil grew up in the tenement buildings that had become the destination for so many Eastern European immigrant families.  He was a talented artist, and after a few years began his schooling at the National Academy of Art and Design, then Cooper Union, Parsons, and The Art Student's League.  Most of his studies were completed through night courses, as he was working as a commercial artist to support himself.  His eagerness to study would translate to a love of and great skill for teaching.  He began teaching soon after completing school, first at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, and then at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum.

Bisttram first visited Taos during the summer of 1930. He went initially to escape the hardship of life in New York following the stock market crash. His first visit, however, was nearly his last. While enthralled by the beauty of New Mexico, Bisttram was endlessly frustrated by his first attempts at painting there:

"Whenever I tried to paint what was before me I was frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space. Above all a strange, almost mystic quality of light."

Perhaps frustrated by what may be perceived as his own limitations as an artist, Bisttram returned to New York.  If indeed he was frustrated at that time, it couldn't have lasted long, as the very next year he won a Guggenheim fellowship to study mural painting.  The fellowship enabled Bisttram to travel to Mexico where he studied mural painting with the world famous muralist Diego Rivera.  Numerous mural commissions were to follow throughout his career, including murals for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., The Taos County Courthouse, New Mexico, and the Federal Courthouse in Roswell, New Mexico.

After his time with Rivera was through, Bisttram returned immediately to Taos, and that same year founded the Taos School of Art, of which he would remain the director for the rest of his life.  Bisttram came to be much admired as a teacher.  He was an extremely articulate individual, and was as skilled at explaining concepts of composition, drawing and painting as he was at applying those concepts to his own paintings.  The school was very well attended, particularly during the summer months.  Further demonstrating his skills as an administrator, the following year Bisttram started the first commercial art gallery in Taos, the Heptagon Gallery.

Bisttram first came to Taos as a representational painter. His canvases show stylized renderings of Native American dancers, portraits of natives and Mexicans, as well as depictions of local architecture.  However, he began to experiment with non-objective (ie. Abstract) forms in his paintings.  He became heavily influence by the work and philosophy of the painter Wassily Kandinsky.  Indeed, in many of Bisttrams canvases, the influence of the Russian is evident in the bright colors, and abstract forms that he began to employ.  In 1938 Bisttram, along with Raymond Johnson and several other painters, founded the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The aim of the group was to work to bring painting beyond the appearance of the physical world.  Work of this type had begun in Europe at least two decades previously, but this was something new to America. Despite the stated goal, Bisttram often maintained elements that were at least semi-representational in his canvases.

Bisttram continued to be extremely active in the artistic growth of New Mexico for the rest of his life.  In 1952 he co-founded the Taos Art Association, and in '59 won the Grand Prize for painting at the New Mexico State Fair.  Also in 1959, a retrospective of his work was held at the Harwood Art Museum in Taos. As a final honor, and tribute to one who done so much for the artistic community and the identity of New Mexico as a whole, in 1975 April 7th was declared "Emil Bisttram Day," a New Mexico state holiday.  The next year, 1976, Emil Bisttram died at the age of 81.

Bibliography
1. Bickerstaff, Laura, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Sage Books, Denver, 1955, p. 55-68.
2. Coke, Van Daren, Taos and Santa Fe, The Artist's Environment 1882-1942, University of New Mexico Press, 1963, pp. 22-23.
3. Luhan, Mabel Dodge, Taos and Its Artists, Duell Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1947.
4. Pearson, Ralph, The Modern Renaissance in American Art, Harper, New York, 1954, pp. 81-86.

Biography from William R Talbot Fine Art:
"It is my conviction that art . . . is a means to unfold the consciousness and thereby bring it to envision and experience wider horizons. . . . an experience on a higher plane of emotion and intellectual perception without which there can be no real progress in man’s development." (Emil Bisttram)

Emil Bisttram (1895–1976) grew up in New York City and entered the art world at a very exciting period in modernism. His main influences were the Russian abstractionists Wassily Kandinsky and Nicholas Roerich. Under a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932, Bisttram worked in Mexico with Diego Rivera, after which he relocated to Taos, New Mexico. There, “Bisttram made a formal statement of his artistic intentions with the co-founding of the Transcendental Painting Group. This Group gained recognition for being among the first Southwestern artists to challenge the supremacy of the conservative regionalist painters.” (Wiggins)

Emil Bisttram (1895–1976) came to New Mexico having absorbed the ideas of modernist abstraction and the international style of representation. His philosophies were well developed and he embraced the design principles of Dynamic Symmetry. By his own account, when Bisttram finally came into contact with the spirituality and art of Native Americans in New Mexico, his many artistic influences and goals found resolution. His portraits of the period are considered to be some of his strongest works.

While the Transcendental Painting Group is strongly identified with nonobjective forms of expression, Bisttram never rejected the use of representation altogether. He altered his style to fit his subject, even as his nonobjective persuasions and mystical convictions became the driving forces in much of his work from the 1930s on. Although the Transcendental Painting Group lasted only a few years, Bisttram’s School of Art endured.

During the years of World War II, Bisttram decided to take his school to Los Angeles where many young artists were either stationed in the armed services or were working in defense plants. In the winters, he moved the school to Phoenix and offered classes to the handful of artists who were able to enroll during wartime. After the war, the school returned to Taos and flourished with students enrolled under the G.I. Bill.

As a creative and intellectual force, Bisttram is recognized as one of the most important modernists of the Southwest.

Ref.: Walt Wiggins, The Transcendental Art of Emil Bisttram (1988).

Biography from David Cook Galleries:

Emil James Bisttram
Born Hungary, 1895
Died New Mexico, 1976

Emil Bisttram grew up in the tenements of New York City after his family emigrated from Hungary when he was a young boy. Bisttram studied at Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. During his training, Emil studied under Ivan Olinsky, Leon Kroll, Howard Giles, and Jay Hambidge. Bisttram later taught at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, Parson’s School of Design, and at the Master Institute of the Roerich Museum in New York.

Bisttram opened the nation’s first freelance advertising art agency by the age of twenty-one. However, he soon abandoned the business in pursuit of a career in Fine Art.

In 1930, the artist made his first visit to Taos, New Mexico, where he reportedly found himself ‘blocked’ by the open spaces, intense light and color that define the region. In 1931, he traveled to Mexico where he studied mural painting with Diego Rivera on a Guggenheim Fellowship. While in Mexico, Bisttram’s wife lived in Taos where the couple established permanent residence upon his return.

In Taos, Bisttram opened the area’s first commercial art gallery, the Heptagon Gallery. He also founded the avante-garde Taos School of Art, later known as the Bisttram School of Fine Art.

In 1934, Bisttram was among artists selected to paint murals for the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.). While commissioned by the W.P.A., Bisttram worked on murals in the County Courthouse in Taos and he completed a mural in the Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C.

Although he continued with representational painting, much of Bisttram’s work in the late 1930’s became increasingly abstract. Along with Raymond Jonson and seven other artists, Bisttram founded the Transcendental Painting Group in 1938. The group’s goal was to “carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world.” Bisttram remained in Taos until his death in 1976.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, I:
Emil James Bisttram
(1895-1976)

Born in Hungary, Emil James Bisttram studied at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union and the New York School of Fine and Applied Art in Hew York City. He later became an instructor at the New York School.

In 1930, Bisttram visited Taos, New Mexico for the first time, but found he was blocked from painting by the “grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space.” Instead, he went to Mexico to study fresco painting with Diego Rivera, becoming influenced by the strong realism and sculptured surfaces.

One year later, Bisttram returned to Taos, and established the Taos School of Art. His work at the time remained realistic. For his 1932 portrait "Indian Girl with Basket," he constructed elements of the composition in wood and clay for more perfect details. In the mid-1930’s, Bisttram painted under the WPA. By 1938 he was a founder of the Transcendental movement in New Mexico as he turned toward non-objectivity, where paintings were composed of universal, rather than physical, forms. Bisttram did not limit himself to a non-objective style, however. He also painted realistic subjects.

Now known as a modern Taos painter, muralist and teacher, with murals in Taos, New Mexico, Texas and Washington DC, Bisttram was “still a vigorous artist” in 1974, two years before his death.

Reference: "The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West," Peggy and Harold Samuels

Biography from Anderson Galleries:
A leader in the development of modern art in America, Emil Bisttram pioneered its introduction in the Southwest moving from New York to Taos New Mexico in 1931. Before 1931 the Hungarian-born artist was exposed to advanced painting and art theory through his close associations with artist such as Nicholas Roerich and Wassily Kandinsky.

Bisttram opened the Taos School of Art, at that time called the Bisttram School of Fine Arts, in 1932. In 1938 along with Raymond Jonson he founded the Transcendentalist painting group whose members sought to convey the cosmic and universal by means of nonobjective aesthetic.

Yet despite his commitment to nonobjective painting Bisttram continued to employ a range of styles throughout his career. In addition to his hard edged geometric abstractions he explored cubism, expressionism and representation.

Biography from Vincent Vallarino Fine Art LTD:
Although Bisttram did paint representationally throughout his career, his works during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s became increasingly abstract.  Along with Raymond Jonson and seven other artists, Bisttram founded the Transcendental Painting Group in 1938, and it was the group’s goal to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world

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Emil Bisttram is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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